Story notes, Interzone #281

Last year I was posting reading notes on Interzone short stories as I caught up on a backlog of magazines that built up during my relocation.

This was part of a personal aspiration to read a short story and an essay every day. Achieving something so simple is sometimes harder than it sounds. 

Sharing those notes here fell by the wayside due to holidays and work, but COVID-19 is inadvertently providing a little time to redress this…  

The Realitarians, James Warner. Apparently part of a series of tales about “feline sleuths”, this one features a woman with a tendency to get mixed up with bad sorts luring a physicist into a kidnapping, following which things rapidly unravel. She’s not a good person, and nor are any of the humans around her. Are the cats? Well, one of them at least might be a “realitarian”. An off-kilter story with an easy humour that left me wanting to read more about these feline sleuths.

Float, Kai Hudson. A very short story about a girl who thinks of herself as a “dirtworm”: a ‘natural’ human living in a zero-gravity space habitat without any modification or adaptation for that environment. She travels to Earth and we see it through her eyes. This is as much a character sketch as it is a story, primarily told through internal monologue and memory, from the point of view of someone who feels unavoidably out of place. It’s simple and it works.

Harmony, Andy Dudak. This is a dark one. A spy or agent strangles an official in a military-occupied city and then attempts to escape. The city is dominated by a song which never stops playing and captivates its listeners, making puppets of them. The song’s disorienting, subversive effects on the point of view character is very nicely handled.

A Dreamer Arrives in the Occupied City, Malcolm Devlin. Surprisingly close to the conceit of the story that directly precedes it. Another city, this time occupied by mysterious, never-identified creatures called “lopers” which – somehow – mean people do not dream. But a woman who returns to a club and the friends she once sought to escape with her new love finds, performing there, a singer who does dream. The story is more concerned with suggestion and implication than anything pointed. In this sense it is both a little like dreams, and is delicately written in that it deftly leaves a lot up to the reader. Despite admiring some elements I found the lack of resolution dissatisfying and the closing character moment unearned. (I did read this story in two halves, on opposite sides of a weekend, so perhaps I missed something important!)

Scolex, Matt Thompson. An addict and former gene-drug producer is tempted by one huge payday to act as a mule for a mysterious new high called Scolex. His employer turns out to be a figure from his past, and his trip – both physical and pharmacological – will take him back home – literally and figuratively. The story’s conclusion is fitting, and the setting left me intrigued.

Cafe Corona, Georgina Bruce. Very short piece that seems to be derived from the biggest moment in astronomy in 2019: the photographing of a black hole, complete with corona. A strange flash story that superimposes that image everywhere, and imagines that said image can be… pushed through? (I didn’t really get this story. Maybe I should re-read it when I’m less dog tired.)

Our Fathers Find Their Graves in Our Short Memories, Rebecca Campbell. Damn, this is maudlin. An epitaph to deceased humanity, crumbling away as capitalocene climate change eats away at the foundations for civilization and, ultimately, life. As humanity declines it retreats into memory. The counter ticks down. The lights go out. The story should be bleak but in its nostalgia and in its personal storytelling it feels more like a farewell, a tidy shutting-down, than the trailing off of hope and human life.

Dorf Fortress #2: Overreaction

It has come to my attention that in the previous instalment I neglected to name my fortress. Welcome back, therefore, to as-yet unglorious Roughrewards, newest colony of the Sunken Attic.

If you’re thinking the fortress name is pretty good and the civilisation name is a little underwhelming, you’re not alone.

When last we left our brave and stupid dorfs, they were busy attempting to punch to death a fully-grown if unconscious alligator and making little headway against its thick scales.

Screenshot of the description of the beaten and bruised alligator.

Fearing that they might expire from exhaustion and dehydration whilst flogging this dead horse, I created a second squad containing my miners, reasoning that they might attack it with their picks. Nope: they too joined the punching party. Presumably they also gouge rock and soil from the very earth with their bare hands.

Screenshot of the miners heading for the alligator, which lies in a pool of its own blood between the wagon and the river.

One of the 39 pages of combat logs describing an alligator being punched and acquiring bruises.

Eventually I gave up, disbanded all military squads and set a burrow. This worked, in that the dwarfs stopped punching the poor reptile. After a short period, during which the alligator neither expired nor moved, I cancelled the burrow and marked the wagon to be dismantled. A few dwarfs got a little spooked by the beast but this didn’t seem to stop their efforts to fetch items for our new stockpile.

I spent a little while designating new areas to be dug out and watching as my dwarfs lugged items back and forth. As you can see from the above screenshots I’m currently playing the game vanilla – no custom tilesets or fonts – but it remains compelling just to watch the simulation tick.

When I next checked on our scaled friend, I paused the game in sudden horror. It was gone. Reassuring myself that there were no new combat reports, I tracked it down using the Units list and found the creature slowly limping southwards. I watched it as it exited the map, and felt a brief moment of regret for what might have been.

In retrospect, looking at the incident from the reptile’s perspective, it was wronged in all this. First our idiotic expedition leader sticks their hands into the river right in front of it, inviting attack whilst attempting to pillage the creature’s own food source. Then when it does what instinct compels it toward, it does little more than gash a dwarf in the leg and a dog in the… in the false ribs? Okay. Sure. And then in response it is punched at least 700 times whilst it fades in and out of consciousness. During all this three of its toes explode in gore and its neck is somehow ripped open.

Dwarf Fortress: never proportionate, ever.

Anyway, how about a few shots of the shitty hovel that is Roughrewards?

Here is the entrance with a ramp going lower, west of the wagon, river and memorial alligator bloodpatch:

A screenshot of the entry area to the fortress, with other feature points to the east.

The entryway tunnel precedes to an area I’ll later use for a trade depot, a stairwell leading down, a farm plot and a stockpile.

An unexciting screengrab of a stockpile, stairwell, farm plot and corridor.

Two levels below we find an initial set of what will become bedrooms. I have plans for a grand hall to the east, which will be used as meeting area and dining room.

Eight 3x3 bedrooms, arranged either side of a west-east corridor.

Whilst digging this lot out we struck chert and bauxite, two of the bajillion different kinds of rock that the game’s terrifyingly broad or deep – how would I know which? both? – geological simulation features. I also remembered to make a wood stockpile and to allow corpses in my refuse pile, which almost immediately results in this:

A screengrab of text from the game reading "fluffy wambler remains"

I have no more idea than you do. I guess the cats got ’em.

Dorf Fortress #1

A few weeks back I grew obsessed with Dwarf Fortress. I blame one of my workplace proximity associates, because he started talking about the Villain Update when we were at lunch. Thoughtless bastard.

After a few weeks of watching YouTube Let’s Plays (mostly by Kruggsmash) and re-reading diaries (mostly Glazedcoast and Onionbog) I decided it was time to actually play the game. Last time I tried it didn’t go so well. Dwarf Fortress’s interface is famous for two things: being extremely difficult to get on with, and being functional and logical once you’ve become accustomed to its many idiosyncrasies. It is an interface that flies in the face of contemporary ideas about user experience. The game also uses pseudo-ASCII art so, like, who cares?

After generating a new world and searching for the recommended newbie embark site – soil or clay, shallow and deep metals, serene or calm surroundings, some woodland or trees, and most importantly no bloody aquifer – I embarked with the default loadout. Strike the earth!

The first thing one should do when beginning a game of Dwarf Fortress is check out your immediate surroundings. My dwarfs were clustered on a hilly plateau, apparently many z-levels above sea level. The hill towered upwards still further to their west, which is great as it gives me some soft soil or rock to dig into for an initial entrance. To the east of my dwarfs lay a fast-flowing river, perfect for fresh water.

Elsewhere there were plenty of trees dotted about, and the grass looked like normal grass rather than, say, eyeballs on stalks. All good. The list of creatures in the area was slightly more concerning: seven hippos and an alligator. The hippos worried me as these animals can easily kill humans if they are disturbed, and I figure that they could pulp an idiot dwarf without breaking their stride. The alligator, listed as an ambush predator, worried me less. It was sat in the river nearby, but so long as no one went near it I should be fine.

Another thing it’s recommended that new players do with the default embark loadout is disable everything to do with fishing or hunting while you get your initial rooms dug out. This prevents dwarfs wandering about and, say, aggroing ambush predators in the nearby river. It’s a good tip, so I disabled everything that was recommended. I also made my fish cleaner work as a miner, as the fish cleaner is generally considered the most useless worker in the default loadout, and two miners makes mining faster.

Next I designated a 3 block wide corridor with a sharp turn in it – wide enough for a trade caravan, long enough to give me some room to assemble defences – leading to a 5×5 trade area, a 3×3 area for use as a stairwell, and a 12×12 stockpile. Once that is dug out I’ll move on to a dormitory or rooms, farms, and space for various workshops and stills. Baby steps, though. Finally, I designated a bunch of trees to be chopped down. There are as yet no elves to tell us off for this.

With everything designated, it was time to unpause the game and let my dwarfs get to it!

It all went rather well, until about three seconds had passed and my fisherdwarf walked right up to the river and was attacked by the alligator. For fuck’s sake, man. Didn’t I– oh. No. No, I didn’t disable his fishing labour.

Like I said, the interface is pretty complicated. But this screw-up was on me.

I decided to react by assembling a military squad, aka. a crack team of loyal dregs. I allocated a couple of dwarfs – everyone except my miners and woodcutter was standing about uselessly anyway – to a squad and ordered them to kill the alligator. After unpausing, they enthusiastically attacked the creature. Unarmed.

It turns out that a dwarf is entirely willing to punch an alligator repeatedly, and indeed is capable of bruising every single part of its body and even knocking it unconscious. Unfortunately, it is also rather difficult to kill an alligator this way. And even an unconscious alligator will interrupt the task of any dwarf who came anywhere near it. Did I mention the stupid bloody reptile had hauled itself onto the land and was currently sprawled in a pool of blood right next to my wagon?

At this point my “military” have been punching the alligator for what must be several in-game weeks, and it’s no closer to being dead. There are thirty pages of combat logs, each line stating that the alligator has a new bruise. I dread to visualise this. But my biggest concern is that whilst unarmed dwarfs can’t kill a creature like this, they will not stop trying. If they keep at it for long enough, they can actually die of dehydration. Whilst punching a freshwater reptile. Next to a river.

Smells like Dwarf Fortress!

Next time: how to defeat an unconscious alligator, I try not to fuck up channelling, and possibly some screenshots of our mountain hovel.

Voting Labour

No one likes being told how they should vote. Instead, I’ll share a few reasons why I’m voting Labour.

Critically, I want to emphasise that in the UK General Election 2019 I have a choice to vote for something that I value, that resonates with me, that feels urgent and necessary, and charts a path forwards through the many challenges faced by the UK and our entire civilization (if you feel this is melodramatic, I feel you are not paying attention). This is a stark contrast with GEs prior to 2017, which for me were typically sordid exercises in lesser-evilism. But I don’t want to talk about lesser evils, or reasons not to vote for other parties. I want to talk about reasons for voting Labour, today.

Economically, Britain needs to both end austerity and take proactive steps to address rampant inequality. There are powerful moral arguments to be made for both, but also economic arguments. Austerity has been a clear failure via whatever metric you choose, having neither reduced the national debt nor produced significant economic growth. Inequality concentrates wealth and those who do not benefit do not spend; low spending and hoarding of capital suffocate economic growth. Labour proposes to address both with a progressive tax on the country’s highest earners, the introduction of a superior living wage and the scrapping of austerity schemes like Universal Credit. A modest raise in corporation tax will also help here, and may even result in companies choosing to invest in R&D rather than continue to bung cash to shareholders. This is extremely basic economics.

The NHS is one of Britain’s most beloved and fiercely defended institutions, for all the negative headlines and scandals. Labour intend to deliver the investment the NHS needs to address crumbling infrastructure and take steps to reverse privatisation of and marketisation within the NHS. Other services, like rail, energy, mail and water will return to public ownership. You may have heard arguments about historical problems these services had when under centralised public ownership. To that I reply that their performance under private ownership has a track record of worse services and higher costs both to users and to the state.

In addition Labour, uniquely among UK political parties, are exploring alternative models of ownership that decentralise control and support people getting involved in the services that they rely upon. This is one way in which the 2019 manifesto marks the start of a potential journey – one that indicates the sincerity and seriousness of Corbynism when it comes to engaging with the problems we face.

The housing crisis in the UK is no secret, unless you’re lucky enough to be a homeowner. Living in Brighton & Hove I was very familiar with my partner and I paying well over half of our income to subsidise the mortgages of buy-to-let landlords and live in sub-standard, poorly-maintained properties whilst getting hit with arbitrary fees from lettings agents. Meanwhile new homes have been constructed at a pitiful rate for years; as any stan for capitalism will tell you, the whole edifice is driven by companies pursuing their self-interest, and for the majority of big construction firms increasing supply by constructing large numbers of houses would undercut the prices they’re able to charge for a more limited supply. This is basic market forces. Combining a rent cap with large-scale construction of new council homes will significantly alleviate the mounting pressures on those seeking stability and security in their home.

I’m frankly exhausted by Brexit, so I will simply say that for several years now it’s been evident that Labour’s policy on the subject has never been complicated, except in comparison with tedious ultras to whom “cancel it entirely” or “enact the worst form of it” are the only two options on the table. Don’t @ me.

Last but certainly not least, on the environment Labour’s policy is more radical than even the Green Party might offer. Committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2030 is a titanic and challenging commitment, but also one that is absolutely necessary given the scale of the problems we face today. Between this and a Green New Deal backed by a National Investment Bank, Britain could become a leading nation in combating the unfolding climate crisis, and in mitigating those effects which are already inevitable. This is the world we live in now, and of all the major UK parties only Labour is taking this seriously.

A lot of these policies came out of the Labour Party Conference earlier this year, some with unanimous support. Labour over the last few years has transformed into an admirably (if messily!) democratic party, with rank and file members offered more of a say and more influence on policy than at any point in the party’s history. I’m proud to have joined the party in 2017 and to have played a tiny part in its transformation from a rudderless vehicle for failed politics to the dynamic force for positive change that it is today.

Perhaps another day I’ll address why I will not vote Liberal Democrat, or – ha ha – Conservative. But for today, this is about hope: for real progress and positive change. The dream of electoral democracy is that it can offer us the vision of a path toward a better future. I invite you to join me in voting for hope.

Aphelion excerpt #1

When Hal awakes, a woman is sitting beside him. It takes him a moment to realise it is not the woman from his nightmare, but Miranda, another technician from his team. She looks up from the tablet she’s reading when she notices his weak movements.

“Hal,” she says. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

How long was I out? Hal wants to ask. “But it’s meaningless,” he mumbles, groggily. “I don’t remember…”

“I’m not surprised,” Miranda tells him. “Mild concussion from the crash couch. It could have been a lot worse. You probably saw what was left of Argento.”

Hal remembers the dark room he was trapped in, and the bloodstain around the wrecked pod. He shudders, feeling nauseous again.

“Try not to move too much. You’ve got some recovering to do.”

He nods, numbly.

“First things first. Do you remember your name?”

“Hal,” he replies. “You… called me by it less than a minute ago.”

“Excellent. Either your short term or long term memory is functioning fine. I’m slightly worried by the sarcasm deficit in your response, but we’ll chalk that up to having survived an interstellar starship crash.”

“Try not to give me too much credit,” Hal groans, his voice sounding weak to his own ears. “I might not have figured that one out.”

“There we go. Much better.”

Hal shuffles his arms, making to try and sit up, but his limbs feel weak and he quickly gives up. “So… what the hell happened, Mir?”

“Great, you remember me. I wasn’t sure if you were just being rude. So we carved you out of that room with cutting torches. One of our spidermechs – we lost more than a few, but enough are still functional – carried you through the ship. Now you’re here, in the infirmary, with all the other wounded we’ve recovered so far.”

Hal looks around. The pallet he’s lying on is surrounded by towering high shelves stacked with metal and plastic crates of uniform dimensions, each with neatly printed labels. Miranda shrugs.

“Infirmary, cargo bay, whatever. We’re making do here, Hal.”

“How bad was the crash?”

“Bad enough. The Gaia came down hard. It’s a real big ship, and it’s not designed to so much as kiss atmosphere.”

“Skip the obvious stuff, Mir. My brain isn’t leaking out my ears, is it?”

She shrugs again. “No more than usual, chief. Look, we don’t really know how hard she hit. The primary network is offline. We don’t even know how many people are online. The rescue parties are literally making lists as they find people.” She looks down at her tablet and frowns. “There’s the good list, and the bad list. You’re on the good one. The other one makes depressing reading.”

“How… many?”

“About six hundred alive so far. About half of us are injured, maybe fifty incapacitated.”

“Six hundred?” said Hal. “Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah,” replied Mir. They were silent for time. The Gaia’s Disquiet had a crew complement of more than six hundred, and had been carrying thousands more passengers.

“It’s slow going,” she continued, eventually. “There’s a lot of structural damage. A lot of doors auto-sealed during the crash, and pretty much every single one needs cutting through. We’re trying to get the primary network back online, but whatever got fucked up is sufficiently fucked up that we need to take a look at the actual hardware.”

“And we’re at the wrong end of the ship for that?” guessed Hal.

“We’re at the wrong end of the ship for that.”

“So what’s our plan of action?” said Hal. “Rescuing survivors… sure. What about after that? Where are we? I don’t even remember where we were when… well, I don’t remember much. Working. Then the orders to get my arse into a crash couch.”

“Yeah… a plan. About that.” Miranda put a hand on his shoulder. “How are you feeling? Up for a short walk?”

[This is an early scene from a novel I am (slowly) working on. The setting is actually shared with several vignettes I’ve posted here in the past.]

Vignette #12

Gloria’s hand is warm in his, feeling alive and vibrant against the sharp cold gusts of wind that carry across the seafront. They stand side by side, looking out at the waves, which glisten and shine in dappled sunlight.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. He steals a glance sideways, drinking in her face in portrait, glowing radiant in the bright light. “You’re beautiful.”

She laughs, tilting her head back as he admires her. “Stan, you’re too pure for this world.”

“I prefer to think of myself as a dedicated observer of universal truths.”

She looks at him and smiles. Their gazes meet, her brown eyes sparkling. “A speaker of universal cliche, more like.”

“Classics, not cliche,” he challenges. He sweeps his free hand toward the vista before them. “Is the sea cliche? Has it been done too many times?”

“We could have gone to the dump instead. Picked through some romantic detritus.”

He shakes his head. “No, I took you around the second hand shops yesterday. It’s been done.”

She laughs again and shoves him gently. He leans back, putting his weight gently against the counterbalance of her grip, still soft and warm, then pulls gently back. He almost leans in for a kiss, but she has turned her face back to the sea.

“You could have found the beauty in broken old toasters and rusted bicycles,” she tells him. He looks out at the sea once more, hunching his shoulders against the cool wind, and explores what lies before him.

“I’d rather find it in mottled seagulls and discarded instant barbeques. The true icons of the British seaside.”

“No, the over-priced pubs and fish and chips are the true hallmarks of the seaside.”

“The former is why people eat barbeque, and the latter is why the seagulls mass here. QED.”

“For a foreigner, you really have grasped British culture quite well.”

“I don’t understand,” he says, looking at her again, eager to gauge her reaction. “No one here is watching reality television.”

She laughs once more, and looks at him again. Her skin glows in the sunlight, surrounded by loose hairs that wave in the wind. “I love you, Stan, you romantic idiot.”

[This was a writing exercise, challenging me to match setting and mood in a scene of dialogue.]

The Mountain Speaks

In the town at the foot of the mountain, men descended on the ethnic group not like a marauding tribe of raiders and pillagers, nor like a conquering army. They did not even come at night like assassins.

They came openly, as if daylight made them innocent. They came with paperwork, and orders, and steely-faced men with rifles who stood behind them. They came with authority backed by violence.

They dragged into the street, through apologetic words or unapologetic force, all adult men of the ethnic group. These men, distant rulers had decreed, were traitors to the nation.

The men who resisted were beaten by those who dragged them out. All the men were put in chains. Then they were marched away, in long lines like ancient slaver trains, escorted by soldiers with guns instead of guards with whips.

Incessant gunshots could be heard throughout the night, distant echoes from not-so-distant valleys. Children wept. Above the town the mountain stood impassive.

The soldiers returned the next day. The men of the ethnic group were not with them.

The men with the paperwork went to the houses once more. This time they took the women. Some soldiers leered at the women, their faces less steely now the men were gone. We will not speak of the women who were defiant.

The women who were taken from the houses were put in chains, like the men before them. The people of the town who were not members of the ethnic group watched from their windows. Their thoughts were private for no words were spoken. Only the soldiers spoke, and laughed.

The women were marched away. That night there were no gunshots, but the children wept again. The mountain watched in silence.

Neither the soldiers nor the women returned to the town the next day, nor ever again. But the men who had commanded the soldiers went to the houses once more, and this time they took the children.

The children wept still. Some screamed and wailed. They could not put words to their loss and grief. They did not understand, but they feared.

The men put the children of the ethnic group into carts. The carts were filled with crying children who clung to each other. The town had never known so many tears to be shed.

Maybe that is why the ground shook. Maybe that is why the children stopped weeping. Maybe that is why the men with the orders fell still in fear. Maybe that is why the people of the town who were not of the ethnic group looked to the mountain.

For the mountain spoke.

Story notes, Interzone #280

Cyberstar, Val Nolan. Humanity has expanded across much of the solar system, and – wouldn’t you know it – our societies are riven by state violence and deep-rooted inequality. One strange and at times horrifying religion is sending out its missionaries, promising something different and recruiting those it needs for its cause. One such is our protagonist, a laid-off engineer, who at the story’s outset is having his eyes removed by his brothers and sisters. Making good use of its protagonist’s shifting worldview, this story quickly establishes an evocative and exotically familiar setting, feels scientifically grounded despite its wild invention, and delivers in style with its conclusion.

And You Shall Sing to me a Deeper Song, Maria Haskins. Our protagonist is a Singer, an orphan built into a war machine designed to disable ‘bots with song. The war against the bots is done and won, and she may be the last of the Singers. In victory the Singers’ leaders have chosen to dispose of them as, one assumes, a potential threat. The Singer encounters a rogue village living apart from said rulers and, despite mutual suspicion, stays with them. Affairs degenerate and we read of the Singer’s song. The story is entertaining and well written but, as surely as leaders betray followers and enacted vengeance is just, delivered no surprises.

Coriander for the Hidden, Nicholas Kaufmann. This initially seems to be a mildly wacky take on biblical myth and the hypocrisy of the Garden of Eden, told from an angel’s perspective – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – but briskly moves on from this familiar set up to the angel questioning the monstrous tasks that an Old Testament God demands of His host. Angel Suriel’s solution to the moral quandaries it faces is devious and nicely reflected in the structure of the story.

Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again, Sarah Brooks. People are dying, and when they die a black butterfly escapes their body. Butterfly-catchers and black markets emerge: are people simply unable to let go of those they love, or is this a darker phenomenon? This moody, sad story feels like a winding-down of anything that once mattered to people, and whilst personal bonds seem more potent against that backdrop they are not untroubled. A potent short story receptive to intriguing interpretations.

‘Scapes Made Diamond, Shauna O’Meara. A tale told from the point of view of two men, once employed by an extractive corporation as handlers of the psychic alien beasts that produce the drug allowing humankind to spread across the stars. They have returned to bid farewell to the dying matriarch of those imprisoned creatures, and the projected visions and memories of “True” drag into the light an ugly story of exploitation, mass murder and loss, studded with fleeting pinpricks of kindness and hope. There are no simple and morally comforting resolutions here.

Vignette #11

Kenji’s tshirt was displaying an infinitely looped three-second video of a cat misjudging a jump and falling, suddenly graceless, like a dropped log. It was mesmerising, holding the attention once captured: a meme in the viral sense, an eyeworm that would just not let go. Parvati felt she could have watched it a thousand times, and on the train she probably had.

Elsewhere the shirt might have seemed gaudy, but in the context of New Shinjuku it was a drop in the ocean of visual noise. Around them towers soared upward into a cool night mist. Every surface seemed plastered with at least one layer of screens, and every one blared advertisements forth, desperate to attract eyeballs. Night was transformed into neon day, the streets lit with artificial light of every conceivable colour.

On the largest screen Parvati could see, a truly vast display that stretched hundreds of metres away from her and Kenji, stylised human figures trudged along, and as they walked their backs straightened and smiles grew on their faces. The backdrop changed from dull and muted greys and browns into brighter and warmer tones as the cartoon walkers approached their destination: a shopping centre named ‘The Palace of Dreams’.

Above, below and past the ends of this colossal invitation were a myriad other demands on her attention. Without even moving she could see a dozen shoe advertisements, including several brands that she had never heard of before, each suggesting the luxurious lifestyle that only that brand could provide. Motorbikes and ecocars cut their way elegantly but ruggedly across panoramic landscapes. Suspiciously well-groomed young men howled and bellowed and wept in superimposition, as behind them the videogames they played challenged and rewarded and betrayed them. Smiling mothers and housewives turned to their children in their dozens, arms laden with sumptuous foods of every possible cuisine and variation.

“You’re drooling,” said Kenji. Parvati knew he wasn’t looking at her, that he too was entranced by the sight that had struck them like a lightning bolt the instant they stepped out of the train station, but she shut her mouth anyway. She didn’t want to look too much like a yokel, although – standing amidst a gaggle of similarly goggle-eyed onlookers – that ship had already sailed.

At the foot of the unbroken formation of towers could be found an endless myriad of shops, seemingly carved into the concrete footprint of each skyscraper. Most of the names were meaningless to Parvati, but here and there she saw something she recognised: the big grocery and electronics chains familiar from the town she had visited every weekend for most of her life, here appearing like minnows darting between the toes of giants. Products spilled out of the shops in waves, out onto the street, as much a riot of colour and form as the advertisements that hung overhead.

The ranked products mingled with the stalls, which sometimes sold goods like those in the larger shops but more often food. Parvati’s eyes finally relinquished their stranglehold on her brain, allowing other stimuli to draw her attention, and she realised that the smells were overwhelming. Not like at the harbor, where the powerful scent of sea and salt and fish were unavoidable. Nor even like the intense perfumes and aftershaves some of the men and women Parvati had known wore, the ones which made her eyes water and left her recoiling apologetically. This was such a combination of scents that she couldn’t process them, could not unpick the densely woven fabric of smell and identify anything. She was left relying on her eyes once more, taking in stalls selling noodles, falafel, rice bowls, flatbread wraps, spiced meats, skewers, baked fancies, breads, salted fish, jerky…

Parvati felt herself suddenly jostled and she looked around, disoriented. A short boy with spiky hair turned to meet her gaze and grinned from not two feet away. He face and clothes were filthy, but his teeth were neat and gleamed a brilliant white. “Hey,” the boy said to Parvati, then nodded at Kenji.

“Hey,” said Parvati, at the same time that Kenji said “What do you want?”

“Rude,” said the boy, slouching, hands in his pockets. “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what you want.” He nodded backwards sharply, gesturing behind him at the maelstrom of markets and marketing that framed him. “Maybe about what you need.”

“We don’t need anything,” said Kenji, his eyes narrowing. “Come on, kid, clear off.”

“You don’t need to be rude,” Parvati broke in. She put a hand on Kenji’s arm, trying to be comforting. She knew that Kenji was trying to seem tough and worldly, but moments before he’d been staring slack-jawed at the ten-metre tall image of a lingerie model, so it wasn’t going to work.

“Glad you said that, missie,” the kid said, flashing them another grin. “Like I said, it’s maybe about what you need, and what you need’s a guide.”

Parvati frowned at that, thinking about how little money they actually had. At least until they got settled, she told herself, at which point things would turn around. But right now they couldn’t afford to spare anything.

“Penny for your thoughts,” said the boy. “Although… no, I wouldn’t ask you two cutters to spare a penny.”

He pulled his hands out of his pockets, and a pair of moneytabs came with them. Parvati gasped, immediately recognising them as hers and Kenji’s. Kenji growled something unintelligible and balled his fists.

“Hey, hey,” said the boy, grin gone but face composed. “I’m actually just making a point here.” He reached out to offer the moneytabs to them. Parvati took hers carefully and Kenji snatched his from the boy’s hand.

“You need to watch out for thieves,” said the boy. “As you just learned, they’re really quite adept around these parts. You’re welcome, by the way. I discouraged everyone else who had you marked the moment you stepped out onto the street. You’ll find nothing else missing.”

“You offered to be our guide?” said Parvati. “Why? Why are you helping us? You already said you know we don’t have any money.”

The boy shrugged. “I have a good heart. You’re both cute. I like making friends. Maybe I have an ulterior motive. Take your pick.”

He waved down the avenue in the direction the cartoon shoppers still trudged toward the Palace. “You could try and make it on your own. Or you could let me show you the ropes and a place to stay that won’t rip you off or rob you. No strings attached, you can walk away at any time.”

He fell silent and watched them then, waiting while they contemplated his offer. Parvati and Kenji looked at one another. Parvati frowned. Kenji raised an eyebrow. He still looked angry, but just regular-Kenji angry, not furious-someone-just-tried-to-rob-him angry. Parvati shrugged.

“Okay,” she said. “You can be our guide.”

The boy grinned once more. His teeth flashed in the night. “You won’t regret it.”

Uranium fever, it’s gone and got me down

God help me, I started playing Fallout 4 again.

I wrote about Fallout 4 for Arcadian Rhythms some three and a half years ago. I was, broadly, positive. After writing that rambling screed I soured on the game in the same way that I did with Bethesda’s Skyrim. I also wrote about the latter falling out of love experience, and much of what I say about Skyrim is applicable to Fallout 4, for all that my 2016 piece dissembles over my volte-face.

And yet here I was, a scant few years later, playing again. Why, Shaun? Why?

The initial impetus is easy to explain: I bought an Xbox One X, I own a 4K TV, I wanted to check out some pretty games, Fallout 4 has dynamic 4K support and some other rendering bells and whistles, and was free on Xbox Game Pass. So I downloaded it and pootled about a bit in the opening area, expecting I’d soon uninstall.

I didn’t.

So there I found myself again: forty or more hours into a playthrough, with that teeth-grindingly tedious Bethesda core loop (go place, kill shit, collect junk, go home, dump junk, repeat) having sunk its blunted teeth into my skin. It couldn’t draw blood, but somehow it left an impression. Damn it, Shaun. Why?

There’s a lot about Fallout 4 I actively dislike. Fallout‘s RPG DNA is non-existent at this point in the series. The dramatic gore of ‘cinematic’ VATS doesn’t look good, mainly thanks to the camera’s idiot behaviour. Somehow, melee combat is even less interesting than the game’s limp gunplay. Repeating the same quests I dimly remember from three years ago is immediately dull.

Let’s not even talk about the writing. Most characters feel as dead as the world around them. The main story is completely at odds with everything else in the game. Rarely is an interesting choice offered via dialogue. Said dialogue is at best passable, and typically tedious. Most quests have a bare minimum of narrative context wrapped around them, meaning even the quests which aren’t procedurally generated often feel as if they are.

So what do I like? Well, I tried Fallout 76 for a laugh, and Fallout 4‘s a masterpiece in comparison to that dead-on-arrival nightmare.

Wait, no, that’s not a thing I like.

I enjoyed spending time with systems I’d largely ignored previously. I built up my settlements by constructing ramshackle buildings, lighting systems and defensive chokepoints. This was actually rather fun, although there’s little purpose to it and the interface spends more time being irritating than enabling creativity.

Sometimes an area evidences care invested in the story of that place and its long-dead residents. Typically assembled by reading logs on computer systems, this can occasionally be an engaging part of exploration.

I like the music. The Fallout series’ juxtaposition of classic pop with the post-apocalyptic has always worked well, even if it’s moved from dramatic irony to pure kitsch as the series has gotten stupider.

I think that might be about it.

I was even stupid enough to buy the DLC, wondering if what it promised might actually feel more “fresh”. Not particularly! It’s the same familiar gameplay loops and absences. In terms of the broad strokes, I’d seen it all before. There’s no longer even a trace of novelty to justify my time spent. And yet there I was, spending money to try and justify playing Fallout 4 again.

Maybe I was doing this because I’m often tired. My job takes up a lot of mental energy most days and I don’t take many breaks, so when I get home in the evening my brain just wants to slump. Fallout 4 could not be more of a junk food game. No matter the session length, that bitty core loop and the secondary gameplay loops mounted to it like fascinators provide a sense of progression: stuff acquired, new place explored, experience points gained, settlement improved, etcetera. I could play it for fifteen minutes or one hundred and fifty. I might not even notice the difference.

Is that it? Is that really it? I played Fallout 4 again because it’s mindlessly comforting for me, because my brain is dulled and craves the comfort of the familiar and unchallenging? If true, is that how I want to spend my time? I’m approaching forty, for fuck’s sake: is this truly who I want to be?

Even while I was playing Fallout 4 I was eagerly anticipating when I stopped and moved on to something better. Now I have. So if you see me mindlessly indulging again, like a lapsing addict, please call me on it. I can’t see any other reason why I might go back again beyond feeling so weak that the empty pleasure of that mindless core loop is all I feel capable of seeking.